By Perry Diaz
As expected, Sen. Mary Grace Poe Llamanzares was spared a debilitating loss in the Senate Electoral Tribunal’s (SET) ruling on the disqualification case against her. On a 5-4 vote, the political body granted Sen. Poe a graceful respite from her troubled past that has been hounding her since she took a quick sprint from the safe haven of obscurity to the high-stakes winner-takes-all game of presidential rugby. With no political organization and no campaign war chest, Grace’s only weapon was her gritty determination to pursue the presidency that her father – the late Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) – lost in a bitter election that was replete with allegations of electoral fraud. This makes one wonder: Did FPJ’s defeat compel her to seek the presidency regardless of the seemingly insurmountable roadblocks she would encounter along the way?
With no experience in holding an elective position, Grace – on the strength of FPJ’s popularity – ran for a Senate seat in 2013… and won! Not only did she win but won with the most votes among the senatorial candidates. Nobody could explain her meteoric rise. Some even suggested that her “miraculous” ascent to the threshold of political power was an act of providence. And no sooner had she taken her oath of office than people started talking about her running for president.
Although she never admitted any presidential ambitions – perhaps she was thinking it was too early to disclose her future plans – she didn’t discourage people, particularly the media, from talking about it. But there was one major problem confronting her from the get-go: her citizenship.
However, her citizenship was never a problem when she was living in the U.S. In fact she had the best of two worlds; she was a dual Filipino-American citizen. It was a convenience she carried with her, whether she was looking for a state or federal job in the U.S. or visiting her parents or relatives in the Philippines. Yes, it served her well… very well, indeed.
But — oops! – it could be a very big problem if she ran for national office in the Philippines where the Constitution requires those running for President, Vice President or Senator to be a “natural born” Filipino citizen. Because of her status as a “foundling” – a child with no known parents at birth — she might not qualify to run for any of these offices. She had to find a way to go around it; otherwise, she’d be stuck in a desk job pushing pencil for the rest of her life. No way, Jose!
Rule of law vs. status quo
In 2013, undeterred by constitutional nuances, Grace ran for Senator. She made a little “white lie” in her Certificate of Candidacy (COC). She declared that she was a “natural-born” Filipino citizen and claimed Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces to be her natural-born parents. With these two iconic movie stars as her parents, she must have believed that nobody would question it. And she was right; nobody from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) questioned it. But one of the defeated senatorial candidates – Rizalito David – questioned it and filed a petition with the SET to disqualify Grace from keeping her Senate seat.
Although Grace won the disqualification case against her, the dissenting opinion of the SET Chairman, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, says it all: “There is no dispute that respondent Mary Grace Poe Llamanzares is a Filipino citizen, as she publicly claims to be. However, she has failed to prove that she is a natural-born Filipino citizen and is thus not qualified to sit as Member of the Senate of the Republic of the Philippines pursuant to Section 3, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution.”
It is interesting to note that the two other Supreme Court Justices in the SET, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Arturo Brion, together with Sen. Nancy Binay, voted to disqualify Grace. The other five senators in the SET, Vicente Sotto III, Pia Cayetano, Loren Legarda, Cynthia Villar, and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV voted to uphold her. The outcome of the SET vote seems to imply that the SET is divided between proponents (justices) of the rule of law vs. the defenders (politicians) of the status quo.
But no sooner had the SET announced its decision than Rizalito David filed criminal charges against Grace in the Comelec over Grace’s citizenship and residency. David accused Grace of “material misrepresentation” in filing her COC in 2013. He claims “Grace is not a natural-born citizen, had failed to comply with the two-year residency requirement for senatorial candidates, and was ineligible ‘for the office she sought’ in 2013.”
In regard to Grace’s status as a “foundling,” David said that she could not claim or acquire the status of a “natural-born” citizen because the reported circumstances of her birth did not yield any proof with which to conclude “her father or mother is a Filipino citizen, so as to make her a Filipino citizen at birth.”
And here is the stinger: David said Grace became an American citizen in 2001 and reacquired her Filipino citizenship in 2006. “This is in fact null and void because she is not qualified to apply for reacquisition of Filipino citizenship she being not a natural-born Filipino … hence she remained an American, and her domicile remained in the United States of America,” he said.
With Grace making two false statements, David said that she erred in declaring that she was eligible to run for the Senate in 2013. If found guilty, she could face imprisonment of up to six years. Interestingly, there are four other charges filed against Grace in the Comelec. It is also likely that any of these cases could end up in a higher court and/or the Supreme Court. With only six months left to the May 9, 2016 elections, the question is begged: Can Grace extricate herself from this legal maze while avoiding a constitutional crisis?
Meanwhile, as a result of the SET’s failure to disqualify Grace, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who has been staying away – at arm’s length – from the presidential race had confirmed through his presumptive vice presidential running mate Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano that is a Duterte-Cayetano tandem for the 2016 elections. Duterte also said, “My candidacy for the presidency is now open to a presidential run.”
What changed Duterte’s mind was the recent SET decision in favor of Grace. “(Poe) will be a presumptive President whose citizenship is based on presumption. The highest position is reserved for a true-blue Filipino,” Duterte said. “I cannot accept an American President.”
However, he said he would change his mind if the SET reverses its ruling or Poe shows the public her real mother. “Show me your real mother and I will even campaign for you,” Duterte said.
Cayetano also quoted Duterte as saying: “I can’t allow them to f–k the people and to destroy the Constitution. I respect the SET but the ruling is totally wrong.” “If you disregard the Constitution, that’s just wrong. Because of that he’s [Duterte] running. He’ll no longer allow what’s happening,” he said.
While Sen. Grace Poe might look and sound confident after overcoming the first roadblock on her way to the apex of her political life, the legal roadblocks facing her soon could be insurmountable to a point where “surrender with honor” might be her best option. Indeed, after savoring her first victory – a piece of cake — over the SET disqualification case, it might come to pass that it was nothing more than a hollow political win. What counts is the last hurdle to the finish line. The question is: Would she have the gumption to go all the way to the finish line or would she even reach it?